Millions of years ago, Western Massachusetts was a Jurassic world

See the traces dinosaurs left behind.

An interpretive painting of Amherst 190 million years ago.
An interpretive painting of Amherst 190 million years ago. –Courtesy of the Beneski Museum at Amherst College. Painting by Will Sillin.

Kornell Nash’s family business gets a boost with every new Jurassic Park film—because it’s covered in dinosaur footprints.

Nash is the owner of the Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop in the Western Massachusetts town of South Hadley. It’s located on the same property as an old quarry with traces of dinosaurs.

“Kids were always interested in dinosaurs, but after the [first] movie, parents were more interested too—and they became more aware of kids being interested,’’ Nash said.

The site is one of several locations in the area around UMass Amherst that offers a portal to the world of more than 150 million years ago. The Connecticut River Valley, it turns out, has a rich history of dinosaur discovery and research dating back more than a century. Its claim to fame isn’t big body skeletons, but rather prints from the Jurassic-era of 200 million to 145 million years ago.

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The shop has been in the family since the late 1930s, when Nash’s father bought the property. Every year, Nash cuts footprints out of the quarry—which is about the size of three tennis courts—and sells them in the shop for between $50 and $1,000.

“It’s not a high-volume business,’’ he said.

But even if they don’t buy a footprint, many are willing to pay $3 to see where dinosaurs once roamed.

“You get families with kids, families of adults, hardcore rock-hound types, academics, and non-academics from all over the place,’’ Nash said.

A dinosaur footprint in Holyoke —Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Reservation

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South Hadley is widely believed by researchers and historians to have been the site of the first-ever dinosaur footprints found in North America.

The tracks were found in 1802, about 40 years before the term dinosaur even existed. According to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College, a boy named Pliny Moody discovered a slab of tracks while working on his family’s farm. But the man generally credited with seriously researching the tracks was Edward Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, who was the third president of Amherst College, dedicated much of his career to studying fossilized tracks in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Many of the slabs of rock he studied are kept in the Beneski Museum.

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Hitchcock’s first paper on the fossils was published in 1836, six years before the term “dinosaur’’ was coined.

“He thought the larger tracks were made by giant, extinct birds,’’ said Kate Wellspring, the collections manager at the Beneski Museum. “Though later he realized there were a variety of tracks and track makers, and [thought] some might not be birds but lizards or amphibians.’’

Today, most scientists believe birds evolved from some dinosaurs, so Hitchcock was on to something. Then again, as a devout Christian who was dubious of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, he may not have had much patience for the idea that birds and dinosaurs are related. Still, his work was considered progressive at the time, Wellspring said.

“The tracks were sort of the talk of the town, or the region, from 1840 to 1860,’’ she said.

It wasn’t until after Hitchcock died in 1864 that other researchers began to suggest the tracks belonged to dinosaurs, Wellspring said.

The Nash shop in South Hadley —Photo courtesy of Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop

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The quarter-acre parcel in Holyoke sits on the Connecticut River off of Route 5. It would be unremarkable, if not for the large slab of sandstone featuring dinosaur tracks.

The site is owned by the Trustees of the Reservation, a Massachusetts land-conservation nonprofit that boasts more than 100 different properties across the state. The Dinosaur Footprints site is probably the best-known location in the region for tracks.

Workers stumbled upon them while they were rebuilding Route 5 in the 1930s. The dozens of footprints ranged in size from 5 to 13 inches. The Trustees bought up the property shortly after the discovery.

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Josh Knox, the supervisor for several Western Massachusetts Trustees locations, said the site draws about 200 cars per week when it is open from April to November.

For the first time, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau is marketing the Western Massachusetts dinosaur legacy in visitor pamphlets this summer, directing the paleo-minded toward the Holyoke site, the Nash store, the Beneski Museum, and other dinosaur-related locations.

Part of the reason? Connecticut, where the dinosaurs also left traces, has been marketing its footprints for years. Michele Goldberg, the bureau’s marketing director, hopes Western Massachusetts can siphon off some of the dino-tourists. “The footprints cut through the two states,’’ she said, “but visitors don’t necessarily stop at the border.’’

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The dinosaurs didn’t give much thought to state lines, either.

When they left the footprints, the supercontinent known as Pangaea was in the process of breaking up. Western Massachusetts was in a very different part of the world, somewhere near where Central America is now, according to Knox.

Very few bone fossils have been found in Western Massachusetts. So the footprints are important, because they tell us all we know about the creatures that left them.

The length of their strides and the size of their prints tell us that some would have been taller than 15 feet. Long claws indicate a dinosaur was a carnivore. And track patterns have also fueled discussion about dinosaur behavior.

Research in the 1960s and 1970s helped to establish the idea, seen in the Jurassic Park movies, that dinosaurs were social animals that gathered together. The groupings of the prints of one species in Holyoke helped to form that theory.

However, more recent work led by University of Connecticut professor Patrick Getty has splashed water on that research.

Getty thinks the footprints at the Holyoke site are grouped together not because the dinosaurs were traveling in packs, but because they were trying to maneuver around the boundaries of a lake that existed at the time.

He believes the dinosaurs that left those particular tracks were indeed loners. But there is still plenty of evidence that other species traveled together, Getty said. “You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.’’

Cross-generational debate about the behavior of gigantic prehistoric animals is part of what makes dinosaur research exciting, Getty said.

“It stimulates the imagination in a way a lot of other science doesn’t,’’ he said.

A family checks out the dinosaur footprints in Holyoke. —Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Reservation

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